in English Literature, Poetry

Below, you will find a detailed analysis of the poem ‘The Schooner Flight, Chapter 11: After the Storm’ by Derek Walcott.

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11 After the Storm

“There’s a fresh light that follows a storm

while the whole sea still havoc; in its bright wake

I saw the veiled face of Maria Concepcion

marrying the ocean, then drifting away

in the widening lace of her bridal train

with white gulls her bridesmaids, till she was gone.”

(Full poem unable to be reproduced due to copyright restrictions)

The Schooner Flight Derek Walcott
Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

VOCABULARY

Schooner — a type of sailing boat

Shabine — the name of the speaker in the poem

Maria Concepcion — Shabine’s female companion

Havoc — chaos and destruction

Wake — the aftermath of a wave

Bridal train — the long part of a bride’s dress that trails along the ground

Inland — away from the sea’s edge, into the land

Reefs — ridges in the sea made of jagged rocks and coral

The Bahamas — a chain of islands (an archipelago) that is located to the east of Florida in the Caribbean

Scrub — scrubland, low, flat land with grass and small shrubs

Bowsprit — the pointy front end of the ship that juts out from the main boat

Archipelago — a group of small islands

STORY/SUMMARY

Stanza 1: There’s a fresh, bright light that comes after a storm, while the whole sea is still moving in chaos; in the bright aftermath of this light I saw the veiled face of Maria Concepcion marrying the ocean — with white seagulls as her bridesmaids, she drifted away out to sea as the lace train of her bridal gown widened until she fully disappeared. I didn’t need anything after that day. A light rain was falling across my own face, like the face of the sun, and the sea was calm.

Stanza 2: (Speaking to the rain) Fall gently, rain, on the face of the sea that seems like a girl taking a shower; make these islands fresh, as I remember they used to be! Let all the traces of the land, every hot road, smell like clothes a girl had just ironed and pressed, sprinkling with drizzle. I finish the dream: whatever the rain washes and the sun irons: the white clouds, the sea and sky are all tied together with one seam (the horizon), and this is enough clothing by itself to cover my nakedness. Though my Flight (my journey, also the name of my boat)never passed the incoming tide of this sea beyond the edge of the West Indies (beyond the loud reefs of the edge of the Bahamas), I am satisfied if my writing managed to give voice to the grief of one nation. Open the map and look at the West Indies. You will see more islands there, man, than peas on a tin plate — all different sizes, one thousand islands in the Bahamas alone, from mountains to low-lying scrublands with coral keys. From this front point of the ship, I bless every town, the blue smell of smoke in hills behind the towns, the one small road winding down the hills like a piece of string to the roofs below; I have only one theme:

Stanza 3: My theme is this: The bowsprit, the arrow, the feeling of longing, the heart that lunges forward — the journey to a place whose destination we will never know, searching in vain for one island that is healing as soon as you reach its harbour, and a place where nobody feels guilt, from where you are standing all the way to the horizon (the edge of your vision), where the shadow of the almond tree doesn’t hurt the sand. There are so many islands! As many islands as there are stars in the night sky, (looking out at the night sky) it is as if the stars all rest on a branched tree in the heavens, from which meteors are shaken down like falling fruit, and they come to rest around this boat called ‘Flight’, where I am now. But things must fall, it has always been this way, on one side of the sky there is the planet Venus, and on the other Mars; these planets fall and become one, in the same way, the Earth is just one planet, one island in the archipelago of stars. My first friend was the sea, now it is also my last remaining friend. I am going to stop talking now. I work, then I read, sleeping under a lantern that is hooked to the mast of this ship. I try to forget what happiness was, when that doesn’t work I study the stars. Sometimes it is just me and the soft-scissored sea foam as the deck of the ship turns white and the moon opens a cloud like a door, and the light over me is like a road made of white moonlight, taking me home. I, Shabine, sang to you from the depths of the sea.

SPEAKER/VOICE

In ‘The Schooner Flight’, the poem’s main speaker is ‘Shabine’, a mixed race figure who is a product of colonialism. His background is similar to Walcott’s, who was of Dutch, English and African heritage. Shabine is also comparable to the heroic protagonist Odysseus in Homer’s Ancient Greek epic poem The Odyssey; he is a sailor-poet figure who sails the Caribbean. In the first section of the poem (not the chapter given above), Shabine describes himself as “just a red nigger who love the sea, . . . I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,/ and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.” This description, while being playfully ironic in its reappropriation of a pejorative term, summarises the central themes of the piece: the issue of identity and culture, particularly when applied to a mixed race individual in a postcolonial context. Shabine feels as though he is either ‘nobody’ — of no fixed describable identity — or ‘a nation’ — a cultural representative of the Caribbean with all of its mixed roots and origins. Walcott’s own heritage is also comparable to this mixture, so we could interpret Shabine as a similar figure to Walcott himself.

LANGUAGE

Creole language- As with many of his poems, Walcott incorporates West Indian dialect into the language of the poem, speaking in his native tongue rather than using standardised English or British grammar. Evidence of this can be found in the non-British syntax of phrases such as ‘Now, is my last. I stop talking now’, specific West Indian lexical choices such as ‘cotching’ (relaxing) and terms of address such as ‘man’, which sound informal and conversational but are also typical of Caribbean dialect.

Apostrophe — “Fall gently, rain, on the sea’s upturned face / like a girl showering;” the simile of the sea’s face being rained on like a girl is a curious one, full of associations of innocence, purification and domesticity. Shabine addresses the rain directly using apostrophe — a technique common in classical literature — to command it to fall ‘gently’, the adverb creating an atmosphere of peace.

Symbolism — the sea is depicted as a spiritual entity in the poem, perhaps a representation of the divine and God himself. Towards the end of the poem, Shabine states My first friend was the sea. Now, is my last.”, implying that this spiritual force is with him always as a guide and companion, even after all other humans have left. Water itself is also generally connected with spirituality in the poem, there is a ‘storm’ which gives way to light ‘rain’, perhaps indicating the ebbs and flows of life, as well as the purifying potential of water and the divine. The sea is also used often in poetry to symbolise the unknown, or the emotions and subconscious feelings which underlie our physical reality.

Visual imagery — Walcott uses the imagery of the Caribbean to locate his poem geographically within the heart of the West Indies. The place is depicted as pure and elemental, with ‘rain’, ‘sea’, ‘sun’ and ‘sand’. Specific images such as those of the towns in the Caribbean islands are described in general terms: ‘every town’ ‘hills behind them’ ‘one small road’ ‘the roofs below’. This has the effect of implying the universal intentions of the poem — Walcott is trying to give a ‘voice’ to the ‘grief’ of his people, both he as a poet and Shabine as a speaker are attempting to document the collective experience of their nation, rather than speaking just about their own selves.

FORM/STRUCTURE

Title — The title ‘The Schooner Flight’ recalls a certain Biblical passage of the ‘Flight into Egypt’, where Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled the kingdom of Judea (modern Israel) and travelled into Egypt in order to escape King Herod. They return to Judea once it is safe. This behaviour perhaps informs Shabine’s own decision to set sail away from his native land and travel; the final chapter of the poem above describes how he feels on his return.

Mini-epic — This poem is a section from a longer piece called ‘The Schooner Flight’, so make sure to always analyse it as part of a larger work. The whole piece is around 500 lines long, written in iambic metre (rising metre, that shows a sense of progression). It is divided into eleven chapters, so this section is the final chapter of the epic poem.

Persona poem — a poem in which the speaker is a character, narrating in the first person from his or her point of view. The effect is similar to a dramatic monologue, but sustained over a longer period of time.

Caesurae — I finish dream; / whatever the rain wash and the sun iron: / the white clouds, the sea and sky with one seam, / is clothes enough for my nakedness. — dramatic pauses are indicated throughout the poem, as though Shabine is aware that this is his final speech, his final comment on the action of the previous chapters and his overall themes.

Enjambment / Cataphoric reference:

Shabine states:

I have only one theme:

The bowsprit, the arrow, the longing, the lunging heart —

the flight to a target whose aim we’ll never know,

vain search for one island that heals with its harbor

and a guiltless horizon, where the almond’s shadow

doesn’t injure the sand.

The bowsprit, the physical part of the ship which shoots out over the sea becomes the place where Shabine stands to deliver his final speech — he seems to be looking out and addressing the land itself, the fragmented archipelago of islands with its equally fragmented inhabitants, most of whom have diverse heritages and struggle to stabilise their sense of nationality and identity as a result. He states that his one ‘theme’ is the ‘bowsprit, the arrow, the longing, the lunging heart -’ , this asyndetic list conflates the physical self with the spiritual self — his position on the very edge of the boat jutting out into the sea, the unknown, represents his duty as a poet — Walcott often talks elsewhere of the poet’s duty as a sort of seer into the realm of the spiritual and unknown, as well as his political duty to provide a voice to his people; Shabine ends his epic tale here with an intention of accepting both these roles. He says that his message, which carries the grief of his people, intends to lunge forward, with strong emotion, into the future, into the unknown, with the aim of finding some kind of ultimate peace and reconciliation, an island ‘that heals with its harbor’ and a ‘guiltless horizon’, a future where his people no longer feel stress, grief and confusion over their cultural identities and their place in the world. The structure of the lines underscores the meaning, particularly through the dramatic cataphoric reference created by the enjambment which leaps across stanzas, and the dash after the ‘lunging heart -’ which itself forces readers to shoot forward in their reading of the poem.

ATTITUDES

Shabine attempts to articulate the grief of his West Indian people, who feel displaced and dislocated from their culture and homelands: “Though my Flight never pass the incoming tide of this inland sea beyond the loud reefs of the final Bahamas, I am satisfied if my hand gave voice to one people’s grief.”. In this final chapter of the epic poem, he seems to be satisfied with the idea that his task was to give a voice to the collective cultural feelings of loss and dislocation that are universally experienced by every West Indian person, as a byproduct of colonialism.

Harmony between humans and nature creates a blissful, contented state of peace in the world: The opening stanza of the poem depicts Shabine’s lover and companion Maria Concepsion marrying the sea, then disappearing as she merges into it — it seems as though Shabine is in turn pacified by this action — light rain falls on his face and there is a generally calm, healing atmosphere. This could be interpreted symbolically or spiritually — it may signify the peace that comes from humans living in harmony with nature, from an ecocritical perspective. It may also be a symbol of spiritual purification; as a Christian poet, the name ‘Maria Concepsion’ recalls the Biblical story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the Immaculate conception — the conditions of his birth where a union was made between Mary and God. In this image, it appears that the sea is the spiritual force to which Maria Concepsion is married — suggesting a union between humans and nature to be representative by extension of the union between a man and the divine.

CONTEXT

First published in Walcott’s collection The Star Apple Kingdom (1979).

The Odyssey and Classical Influences — Walcott was heavily influenced by Classics, especially Greek Mythology — he wrote an epic poem entitled “Omeros”, based on Homer’s “The Odyssey”, and his extensive knowledge of the classical world permeates most of his poetry — here we can see the circling gulls as a kind of omen (the Greeks used to read signs in the movement of birds that told them of their future), the references to Venus and Mars perhaps also being an allusion to Roman Mythology, the goddess of Love and the god of War could be symbolic of the way in which Walcott himself views the world — with humanity being torn between these oppositions. Shabine himself has a ‘lunging heart’ — he projects his love forwards before his hatred or desire for conflict. He is also an epic hero who sails the seas on a journey, searching for answers on the connection between history, culture and personal identity. Like Odysseus who returns home at the end of his journey, Shabine here returns back to land — renewed and finally at peace.

Walcott said in an interview in 1985: “I have never separated poetry from prayer. I have grown up believing it is a vocation, a religious vocation.” So the conflation of nature and the spiritual at the end of the poem could also be interpreted as a form of prayer. Certainly, Shabine’s observation of the stars in the sky being similar to the islands on Earth implies harmony between the physical world and spiritual heavens. The ‘meteors’ which occasionally drop down from the sky, in this case, could be interpreted as divine insight into the unknown, which Shabine (and Walcott himself as a poet) feel compelled to write about and communicate to their audiences.

THEMES

  • Identity
  • Collectivism vs Individualism
  • History
  • Nature
  • Divinity / Spirituality
  • The Sea
  • Astrology

CRITICS

Walcott himself said of Shabine: “Out of corruption [his] soul takes wings.”

Mary C Fuller: “The Schooner Flight” folds together local history (the collision of European and African in the Caribbean, the aftermath of a racially mixed colonial society) and mythic history — Homer’s and Vergil’s myths of national origin, of the voyage as shaping, redemptive ordeal.

Mary C Fuller: “Topically, the poem is profoundly concerned with the ways the present encodes the past: in social arrangements, in language, in genetic inheritance”

Greg Weiss: “By the end of “The Schooner Flight,” Shabine has rejected everything but the feeling that motivates his poetry.”

POSSIBLE EXAM QUESTIONS

  1. Discuss Walcott’s treatment of the connections between history and identity in the poem.
  2. In what ways does Walcott explore the theme of nature in “The Schooner Flight, Chapter 11: After the Storm”?

Thanks for reading! If you’re looking for more help with Derek Walcott’s poetry analysis, you can see our full course here.

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